Pittsburgh Opera gave the first local performance of Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied last evening, and about as many people as could fit into the company’s George R. White Studio were taken on a fast-paced and gut-wrenchingly taunt roller coaster ride set to music. The piece packed a wallop that probably resounded most acutely for audience members who lived through the turbulent times of the Vietnam War era, but its dramatic impact was intense, and seemed to make a profound impression on all. It is a brave composer who tackles subject matter that relies almost entirely on psychological drama. Historically, works of this nature haven’t met with much success, but Mr. Cipullo has seen his effort rewarded by a large number of productions over the last dozen years, with more to come at future venues.
The compact chamber opera tells the tragically true story of the late Col. Floyd James Thompson, America’s longest-held P.O.W., who from 1964 until his release in 1973 was subjected to barbaric treatment, while his wife at home struggled with demons of her own. For Thompson, time stood hellishly still for 3,278 days. Any hope of healing from his ordeal was dashed upon his release, when he found that his wife had moved on after enduring her own form of torture from the press and society at large – a society which had changed so drastically in the turbulent years of his captivity that “home” was unrecognizable and unwelcoming.
Mr. Cipullo’s opera structures the unfortunate couple’s lives as dialogue between the past and present, with events and their fall-out presented in almost simultaneous juxtaposition. Thompson and his wife Alyce are the only characters depicted, but Cipullo divides the two roles among four singers. “Younger Thompson” and “Younger Alyce” represent the years of Thompson’s captivity, while their “Older” counterparts represent their far from happy reunion. Whether this take “works” is a matter of taste, but pretty much the same can be said of opera in general, even though this one comes close to creating a genre of its own.
Glory Denied requires a strong cast of singers and highly skilled instrumentalists, and Pittsburgh Opera is able to supply both. The music is a difficult mixture of dissonance and melody, with very angular writing and “jagged” rhythms for singers and orchestra alike. The sometimes chaotic results manage to come together in a way that requires careful listening from start to finish for a full appreciation of the score and libretto. A down side, if it can be called that, is the absolute necessity of super-titles, even though the work is in English. While these may be an annoying distraction during familiar works, the rapid-fire dialogue so prevalent in this new piece makes them a must.
There are three orchestrations for the opera – one for full, one for 16 instrumentalists, and one for 9. James Lesniak conducted the last number of players in a performance that was well balanced in dynamics and provided appropriate support for the singers as they negotiated their ways through rather treacherously difficult roles. Under the direction of Matthew Haney, emotions that are seen more than heard were brought forth successfully, and adeptly portrayed by the singing actors.
Benjamin Taylor and Caitlin Gotimer as the “older” Thompsons delivered strong accounts, the latter in a role which under the wrong director might easily fall into the “ungrateful” category. Mr. Taylor’s warm and resonant baritone has been heard on a number of occasions during the past couple of seasons, and while there were moments that forced him a bit low for his comfort zone, he gave the role his all successfully. The “patter song” which compresses numerous events of the era into a few moments was tossed off with impressive agility. The brilliant, strong soprano voice of Ms. Gotimer becomes more appealing with each acquaintance, and she rose to the acting challenges of her role as well as she sang it. Her “After You Hear Me Out” was especially compelling.
The “younger” roles were in the skilled hands of tenor Terrence Chin-Loy and soprano Ashley Fabian. Their singing and acting, aided greatly by their costuming, drove home very convincingly that their roles represent phantoms of a past that can never be recovered. The composer has given them fewer opportunities to shine, but they took full advantage of them, both vocally and dramatically.
Glory Denied as a whole is in keeping with Pittsburgh Opera’s past record of presenting contemporary works by gifted and impressive Resident Artists. The company deserves praise for consistently offering opportunities to hear rarities delivered by strong, young talent, and patronage is the only reward commensurate with its efforts.
So for tickets, full production details and more, visit Pittsburgh Opera. There are three more chances to see and hear Glory Denied, and the work deserves full houses for all.
The “Artistic Team” for Glory Denied –
Composer/Librettist, Tom Cipullo; Conductor, James Lesniak; Stage Director, Matthew Haney; Set Designer, Jiahui Shi; Costume Designer, Jason Bray; Lighting Designer, Todd Nonn; Wig & Makeup Designer, Nicole Pagano; Head of Music, Glenn Lewis; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Stage Manager, Alex W. Seidel
David Bachman Photography
A Pittsburgh native, George B. Parous began his studies of music and the ‘cello in grade school before his interests turned to opera, its performers and history while in his teens. He has been acknowledged as a contributor or editor of several published works (the first being “Rosa Raisa, A Biography of a Diva,” Northeastern University Press, 2001), and is currently working on his own biography of the German-American dramatic soprano, Johanna Gadski, who sang at the Metropolitan during the “Golden Age of Opera.” A retired IT Analyst, he is an avid genealogist, and has traced his maternal line to 8th century Wessex, England. He’s been a contributor to Pittsburgh in the Round since 2014.
Categories: Archived Reviews